The exhibition in Belgrade and Ljubljana focuses on collaborative works that Rossella Biscotti & Kevin van Braak were developing over the last ten years. The common denominator in their research based artistic practices was the history and memory of architecture.
Their point of departure in producing the works was the political and social context, most notably the representation as well as the dissolution of ideology in different societies.
The enigmatic title of the exhibition, the letter T, could be read as a symbol with both linguistic and visual connotations. In the first case, it represents a sequence of important words starting with T, signifiers that relate to the notions and concepts Biscotti & van Braak are using in their collaborative practice: Time, Transformation, Translation, Totalitarianism, Together, etc. From another angle, T visualizes the Tree where two branches of the artists’ individual practices grow out of their common collaborative and research projects.
Biscotti & van Braak began their collaboration in 2005 in Cape Town, South Africa with the project New Crossroads, consisting of a video that followed the construction of a five-meter high tower built in the township itself. Once the structure reached its peak, it was dismantled and the residents took the materials for their own use.
Their next project Cities of Continuous Lines was pivotal for the number of collaborative (i.e. Door Handle / Maniglia) and individual works (i.e. Biscotti’s The Heads in Question and van Braak’s Shards) that stemmed out of it and are presented in this exhibition. The initial point of their research in this project was the architecture traversing the Italian territory from Mussolini’s dictatorship. The artists documented buildings from this period, some abandoned for almost 60 years, and their transformations. The work Door Handle / Maniglia as one of the outcomes of this project focuses on a door specifically designed by Gio Ponti for Palazzo deli Uffici in a Fascist-designed EUR neighbourhood of Rome. The artists found the whole door on site, reassembled its pieces, and removed all the layers of material such as paint or linoleum that had been applied in other historical periods. Once the door reemerged in its authentic design after the artistic intervention of restoration, the question was raised of how the aesthetics of this particular design convey the ideological messages of the Fascist period? As Stephanie Pilat has noted in the text about this work: “Design is the link between the architect’s intentions and the viewer’s reading of a work, and in the Palazzo degli Uffici we find an architecture that is grandiose, unornamented, and modern. These characteristics were intended to link the regime to the Roman Empire, while at the same time displaying its revolutionary nature.” The other main point for further consideration is how the meaning and ideology certain buildings were trying to visualize in such regimes as Fascism can or could evolve, how they can transform themselves and be reinterpreted for another historical period?
In the series of the project After Four Rotations of A, B Will Make One Revolution (2009 ongoing) the artists started dealing with the context of post-socialist countries and the process and side effects of their ideological “melt down”. Their artistic approach was to transfer existing figurative sculptures from the socialist period into minimalist objects of the same material, weight, historical reference and name. This complex relationship raises the question of how to symbolize history in both types of sculpture, the original figurative one and the minimalist derivative. The process of melting metal is evocative of the end of a regime or ideology when sculptures that were its visual representation are destroyed and sold off for raw material. This ongoing project comprises a series of works that question the relation between history, monuments and representation. From the initial series of sculptures in Belgrade and Ljubljana the following will be presented: Karl Marx, Stasi Museum, Berlin, Vladimir Lenin, Stasi Museum, Berlin, Alexey Stakhanov, House of Culture, Moscow and Industry and Construction, Green Bridge, Vilnius.
The Belgrade public previously had had a chance to see the work from this series titled Josip Broz Tito that was produced within the big international project Invisible Violence in 2014. The artists made seven bronze cubical pieces whose material and weight referred to the series of seven bronze portraits of Josip Broz Tito by the Yugoslav sculptor Antun Augustinčić (1900-1979). The Belgrade based artist Dragan Srdić found these Augustinčić’s sculptures demolished in a scrap yard and used them in his installation that was first shown in the exhibition The Anatomy Lesson at the Belgrade Cultural Centre in 2000. By referring to Srdić’s work, Biscotti & van Braak point out the importance of artistic mediation and continuous rethinking on the issues of memory and identity which are negotiated by the work itself and the actual collaboration with a local artist.
While conducting research in Belgrade, the artists have gathered information for another work within this series titled The Star, which is based on the dimensions and weight of the five-pointed star removed on February 21st 1997 from the building of the Belgrade City Assembly. That year the opposition coalition “Zajedno” (Together) won the city government elections in Belgrade. The two-headed eagle symbol which was removed in 1947 was restored to the dome of the Assembly. The star is now in the collection of the Museum of Yugoslav History and the late Prime Minister Dr Zoran Đinđić brought it personally to the Museum at that time. This work, which was produced later on in the Netherlands, will be shown for the first time in Belgrade.
The Library (2010) is another project that deals with post-socialist countries. The huge cage like installation contains 590 books selected from thousands thrown away from the University Library of Vilnius in Lithuania in 2008. The library conveys the atmosphere of a “prison” for the old ideological and propagandistic Soviet literature covering political, philosophical, sociological, legal and economic subjects. The work symbolizes not only the repressive apparatuses of the Soviet state control of the free knowledge and critical thoughts, but moreover, the structure in which ideas and ideology are constrained by society.
Two projects the artists developed individually after research in Italy are Biscotti’s The Heads in Question and van Braak’s Shards. The first is based on the discovery of five bronze heads of the dictator Benito Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III. Biscotti found them locked away in the basement of the Palazzo degli Uffici in the EUR district in Rome. They had been commissioned from two Italian sculptors Giovanni Prini and Domenico Rambelli on the occasion of the World’s Fair of 1942. However, neither was ever publicly displayed as the World Fair didn’t take place due to the outbreak of WWII. Biscotti’s idea was to finally show the sculptures in the context of an art exhibition in a different venue and examine the balance between their artistic and aesthetic value and the ideological impact they were supposed to have. It was important to start a debate on the role and significance these works could have in the actual political, social and artistic context. The intervention becomes a pretext to define a new space in which to question our relationship to the past, and the shifting line between commissioned artworks and their use as propaganda.
For the exhibition The Future Can Only Be for Ghosts held at Museion in 2015, Biscotti made casts from five bronze heads she had discovered and exhibited in Rome, thus reversing the conventional procedure of making sculptures. Two of the new fragmented heads from this series, reproduced in colored silicon and acrylic resin, will be presented at the exhibition.
The work Shards by van Braak comprises of sixteen heads made out of clay that realistically represent the key individuals involved in the economic, political and military “governance” of the whole world. The performative aspect of the work was the process of burning the heads, leaving only shards to symbolize the world shattered into pieces due to the political and economic crises. The masterminds of this crisis were people “behind the curtain” who keep low profiles and their their real power and influence is not publicly exposed.
The project History is Made of Different Shades of Grey which Kevin van Braak has been developing since 2011 also has a contribution arising from his research in Belgrade in 2014. The project consists of the reconstructed office desks of influential and often controversial former world leaders such as Hitler (together with the famous world globe he had in his office in the Reich Chancellery), Stalin, Mao, Nixon, Mussolini, Franco, and now Tito. The artist makes almost identical reproductions of their desks based on the measurements of the originals. The only thing that differs is that all the desks are realized in another material from the original and are coated in polyurea, which gives them a thick, grey rubber-like layer and visually unifies the whole series. With such an intervention, the original desks are translated into the art world as sculptures that have lost their functionality or the representation of power the originals once had. Nevertheless, the stories behind these desks and the documents that were signed on them had a vast influence on global politics and consequently shaped an historical era. The symbolic message of unifying the desks with different shades of grey is derived from the story of the globe on Hitler’s desk on which all the countries in the world were shown in one shade of grey and overwritten with the word Deutschland. This project which is in Belgrade realised in collaboration with the Museum of Yugoslav History where the most recent copy of the desk of Josip Broz Tito will be exhibited in the same room with the original in the House of Flowers.
Finally, the way stories from different repressive regimes intertwine with personal history is shown in the latest series of Batik paintings van Braak produced in traditional Indonesian style. They trace the route his grandfather had to take as prisoner of war while working on the Burma Siam Railway. The research van Braak made to document the itinerary of his grandfather in his ordeal is based on scarce documentation remaining from this period. They disclose and represent the key toponyms such as Cambodia and Phnom Penh railway stations and a boat pier and an airport in Vietnam.
Curator in Belgrade: Zoran Erić
Curators in Ljubljana: Vladimir Vidmar and Zoran Erić